2016: a binner’s odyssey to the Downtown Eastside
Late Monday night (January 4) below-zero temperatures and freezing fog settled over the Fairview neighbourhood. By 11 p.m. the sides of bus shelters and the tops of newspaper boxes, dumpsters and recycling blue bins were sheened with telltale ice crystals. Almost the only thing that didn’t glitter in the street light were the patches of black ice on the pavement.
I slid into my parkade — quite literally — just before midnight. I bundled my homeless self up in my warm sleeping bag and fully expecting to wake up Tuesday morning to freezing cold temperatures and very slick streets; instead, it warmed up just a tick over night, so that a light drizzle of cold rain had already washed away nearly all the ice by the time I was making my way through side streets to get my breakfast at 7 a.m.
The numbing cold of the rain clutched at my finger tips through the fabric of my work gloves and I reflected how — this being Vancouver — the morning had been so much different just 24 hours earlier; so much warmer and so much snowier.
Wasn’t dreaming of a white bottle run to the DTES
At about 6:45 a.m. Monday (January 4) I walked out of the McDonald’s in the 1400 block of West Broadway Avenue and into a surprisingly mild pitch-black morning and a sudden, unexpected snow storm.
I was about to head downtown to keep an appointment and as the snow continued to fall, thicker and faster, I considered how it would add to my caution and slow me down as I threaded the rush hour traffic.
I was actually rather in a hurry but I allowed myself a few minutes to simply stand beside my bicycle and watch the increasingly fluffy white flakes drift down and stick, like velvety flocking, to the sidewalks and curbs.
Then I unlocked my bike and trailer, flicked on my headlamp and I was off. I had just under an hour to get from Fairview, around False Creek and into the Downtown Eastside. I was on a schedule and I couldn’t afford to be so much as fifteen minutes late.
Last year, the residents of a small condo in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside generously offered me several weeks-worth of all their returnable beverage containers. This has since developed into a regular arrangement.
Every three to six weeks, Tasha, my contact at the building, gives me a day’s advance notice and I’m on her doorstep at the prearranged time, the next morning.
Monday was one of those mornings, which meant that I was up and out of bed by 5 a.m. — about two hours earlier than usual — and having breakfast by 6 a.m.
The handover of returnables always takes place early, before Tasha goes to work; and she can only afford to wait a few minutes for me, so I need to be on time. Experience has shown that if I give myself about an hour to make the trip from the McDonald’s in the 1400 block of West Broadway, I will always arrive in the Downtown Eastside with five or ten minutes to spare.
When I reached East 2nd Avenue and Quebec Street, I was in excellent shape — time-wise — and the snow had stopped falling. The storm clouds were moving on, leaving nothing in their wake but clear dark skies.
I arrived and was waiting in the alley behind the condo with minutes to spare. This allowed me to take off and pack away my rain gear and otherwise get myself ready to accept the loosely-packed bags of returnables that Tasha would soon be bringing out.
Right on time, the back door opened and Tasha was handing me the first of the bags. She also had a belated Christmas card for me, complete with a McDonald’s gift card (thank you Tasha). And I mentioned already how she and everyone else in her condo was giving me all of their returnable beverage containers (thank you everyone).
Since my last pick-up, the residents had accumulated about six bags-worth of returnables. When I was done repacking in my own way and in my own large-capacity, construction-weight garbage bags, this worked out to about one-and-a-half of my bags for my trailer and two smaller bags of wine bottles to be left in the back alley for some other binners to find. These excess glass bottles represented additional weight than I felt my bike trailer could not safely handle.
It has to be said that the residents of this particular condo almost seem to empty as many wine bottles in a given period as any other kind of returnable beverage container. Please don’t think for a second that I’m whining about heavy glass bottles; it’s just that there’s a physical limit to the weight that my aluminum-tubed trailer can bear (not much more than 45 kg) and trying to carry everything this little condo produces can be…challenging.
Wine bottles are like straws that can break a bike trailer’s back
Consider my third trip to collect the condo’s returnables, which took place on October 15. This involved so much weight, distributed between two large garbage bags, that it very nearly — and dramatically — broke my bike trailer.
Knowing that the load was so heavy, I had carefully positioned and (I thought) sufficiently secured the two bags to keep the centre of gravity well forward of the trailer’s axle.
Hell! I didn’t even make it as far south as Hastings Street before the two bags on the trailer slipped backwards a mere few inches.
That was all it took to make the bike trailer suddenly teeter-totter on the fulcrum of its axle. The back edge of the trailer touched the pavement and, in turn, the front end lifted the back end of my bike right up and off of the road — with me still on it!
I was nearly thrown off, in fact, but it was shock, rather than a surprise. I’d seen the same thing happen to other bike-and-trailer binners and knowing the weight that I was pulling, I was mindful that just such a thing might happen to me.
The force involved could have (should have) torn my already damaged hitch arm to pieces and/or pulled apart the flexi-connector joining the hitch arm to the bike. But, as it happened, I had taken the time the day before to reinforce the arm’s stress points as best I could and so the trailer took the brunt, with only two of my reinforcing steel hose clamps shearing.
Lucky! But that left me in the middle of a side street caught between the irresistible force of the two heavily loaded bags and the immovable object that was my upended bike. Not even all my weight could push down the back wheel and it seemed as though I would have to risk letting go of the bike altogether, in order to literally throw myself on the trailer and forcibly dissuade at least the front bag from completely surrendering to the pull of gravity.
I might have pulled it off single-handed but I’m eternally grateful that a stranger named Kevin stepped into the street and offered his help.
While he held the bike (which was being held up like a car on the end of a tow truck hook by the bike trailer’s hitch arm), I wrenched each of the 20-or-so-kilogram bags forward on the trailer enough to shift the balance back over and ahead of the trailer axle.
Phew! This was the first time that I’d been on the receiving end of an overbalancing bike trailer. Twice before I’d been the passer-by helping another bike-and-trailer binner regain control of their load and I was so glad that a passer-by stopped to help me.
Monday was basically a magnificently dull day
This last pickup of bottles in the Downtown Eastside on Monday went off without any such hitch (so to speak) and I had cashed in the entire load at a recycling depot and was calmly drinking a coffee on West Broadway Avenue well before the clocks struck 11 a.m. The rest of the day was majestically clear with the earlier mild temperatures slowly giving way to crispness, then cold and finally to freezing fog — but that’s where you came in. Click the images to enlarge them.